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Atlas 5 launch
An Atlas V launch in August 2019, seen from the author’s home.

National spaceports: the past

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The US Air Force, long the operator of the nation’s primary space launch bases, is giving some thought to what “National Spaceports” should be. This analysis should be aided by certain facts.

The launch bases at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (AFS) and Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) originally were conceived as test facilities for Air Force Systems Command programs. Systems Command’s main focus was its product centers, the procurement organizations for new Air Force systems. They conducted development and acquisition of new military hardware. Under Systems Command’s highly programmatic focus, the launch centers and all other test ranges were entirely driven by the various procurement program requirements. Program offices almost always greatly dislike even the idea that they could be impacted by the requirements and actions of other programs, and as a result this produced a huge proliferation of range systems and facilities designed to meet specific program requirements, largely without regards to overall efficiency. Tracking systems, communications systems, utilities, and brick-and-mortar support facilities required by programs were installed at the launch bases largely without regard to long-term costs or efficiency. This had the effect of increasing test center capacity: dozens or even hundreds of test support operations were common every day, and even multiple rocket launches in one day were common. On the other hand, no doubt many opportunities were lost that could have reduced costs, or at least been better for future activities.

Following the shuttle-only plan, facilities and instrumentation for the ELVs were allowed to decay and it became something of a race to see if the shuttle arrived before everything else fell apart.

The torrid pace of development and operations of the ’50s and ’60s slowed considerably by the early 1970s. One reason was that newer spacecraft lasted considerably longer on-orbit and reliability improved as well, so fewer launches were required. Missile development slowed somewhat as well compared to the early days, but there was a radical new factor introduced in the early 1970s that still shapes US spaceports to this day: the Space Shuttle.

The shuttle minimum

The national Space Transportation System plan developed in the early 1970s visualized the Space Shuttle replacing all other American space launch systems: all the expendable boosters would be phased out. Compared to the expendable boosters, the Space Shuttle required very little range and base support from the Air Force. The shuttle would have its own telemetry systems and would share ground facilities with other programs to only a very small degree. The required shuttle facilities were either being built from scratch or modified from existing buildings. The launch bases had always been driven by specific programs’ support requirements, and when it came to space launches, shuttle was decreed to be the only game in town in the future.

About the only exception to this master plan was missile R&D. The Trident D-5 and Peacekeeper ICBM, as well as development testing of new reentry vehicles, meant that the missile programs needed some new facilities and modernized range capabilities. GPS tracking capabilities were added to the Eastern Test Range, while at the Western Test Range large new Peacekeeper facilities were built and the telemetry system was upgraded with a remarkable new leap in technology: transistors!

Following the shuttle-only plan, facilities and instrumentation for the ELVs were allowed to decay and it became something of a race to see if the shuttle arrived before everything else fell apart. This applied not only to funding and infrastructure but to people as well. Many experienced people either quit their ELV-related jobs and moved over to shuttle or were forcibly reassigned. And at Vandenberg AFB, the military organizations working to bring the shuttle on board were staffed at upwards of 200% while the people actually launching payloads on the ELVs sometimes could not even get all of their manpower slots filled.

The net result of this is that, for well over a decade, the Air Force endeavored to provide the absolute minimum spaceports possible, outside of the shuttle activities. After all, most of it was going away eventually, anyway. Even the range instrumentation and tracking capabilities common to almost all programs were going to be used at best minimally by the shuttle program. There were essentially no provisions for private companies to use the national space launch ranges for their own development and launch efforts; the very few firms that chose to pursue such activity mostly went elsewhere.

The basic idea was not to replace the aging and inefficient infrastructure but rather to patch it better, until the expected newly designed ELVs could enable better definition of future space launch base requirements.

The only new government development to buck this downhill trend was a new Air Force program that began in 1984, the Complementary Expendable Launch Vehicle, which became the Titan IV. It was designed as limited effort, intended to “complement” the shuttle for ten missions only, limited to three different military payloads all using boosters of similar configuration, and all to be launched from a single pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. There were also attempts by other companies to continue building the Delta and Atlas ELVs, but they had very limited success due to the difficulty in competing for commercial payloads with the heavily subsidized shuttle, as well as the refusal of the US government to allow the vast majority of its payloads to be launched on ELVs. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 did enable private firms to utilize the launch ranges, though, and private industry did express additional interest in the possibilities of privately funded space launches and facility upgrades.

The loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, not only caused a change in direction for US space programs in general, but it resulted in a complete reversal in many respects. The shuttle would no longer support most launch requirements; ELVs would take over almost every mission that did not absolutely require human activities. But while this represented a huge shift in emphasis on programs and the associated resources, by necessity it meant patching up the old stuff, both in terms of booster designs and the related infrastructure, rather than building new. This was even true for the Titan IV program, which used a modified booster design dating from the 1960s with largely existing launch facilities, except for one wholly new launch pad that was planned to be built at Vandenberg AFB, only to be cancelled later.

Recognizing that something had to be done about not only the patched-together space launch centers but the hastily upgraded ELVs they supported, in 1990 the Air Force devised a Space Launch Infrastructure Investment Plan, which had the somewhat unfortunate acronym of “SLIP.” The basic idea was not to replace the aging and inefficient infrastructure but rather to patch it better, until the expected newly designed ELVs could enable better definition of future space launch base requirements.

The SLIP came up with about $1.5 billion in requirements. Aside from fixing “roads and commodes,” a new remote launch control center for SLC-17 at CCAFS was procured and plans were made to streamline some of the range infrastructure so as to reduce operating and maintenance costs. But some new requirements arose that would completely refocus the launch centers’ upgrade plans.

Space Command’s operational imperative

In the late 1980s, Air Force Space Command assumed control of the launch ranges and brought with it a new attitude. Space capabilities had to be “operational” and that meant they had to be run by “operators”. The heavy engineer/scientist/government civilian/contractor staffing of Air Force Systems Command had to be replaced by people from the other “operational” Air Force commands, of which, by “pure coincidence,” there just happened to be a substantial excess following the collapse of the USSR. Air Force Chief of Staff Tony McPeak emphasized retaining “operators” even though there was a greatly reduced demand for actual operational capabilities. He often criticized Space Command for not providing slots where he could “park” pilots who lacked cockpits until a flying position could be found for them. And Space Command had received the Air Force ICBM force after it was cast off from Air Combat Command, thus finding itself with hundreds of missile crewmen who no longer had jobs when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty mandated a decrease in ICBMs by more than 50%.

Faced with both the overall Air Force philosophy to favor retention of “operators” as well as Space Command’s own preferences, things had change. Operation of the space launch centers had to become simpler and more standardized. As the Commander of the 45th Space Wing put it, “We need to make it so that a history major rather than an engineer can conduct a launch.” Space Command visualized standardizing equipment and activities at both Cape Canaveral AFS and Vandenberg AFB to enable military personnel to quickly augment activities at either coast and accelerate launch processing to meet urgent needs. As part of this concept, Space Command planned an approach where, during the years of peace, the on-orbit constellations would be allowed to decay and then pumped up quickly if a military requirement developed, such as Desert Storm. Many man-hours were spent trying to address standardization issues, such as how the same security badges could be used for both the Cape and Vandenberg, a task that was far more challenging than it would appear due to the significant facility differences between the two installations.

At the Eastern Test Range, a major range upgrade had been planned, Remote Station Automation (RSA). The cost of maintaining the tracking sites at Antigua and Ascension Island was relatively high due to their remote locations and very limited to nonexistent local economies. It took five to ten times as many people to operate those tracking stations as did similar facilities on the US mainland. Consolidating and automating instrumentation was considered to offer a big payback in reduced operating and maintenance facilities and, in the case of Antigua, also reduced rent for land used by the facilities.

But when the new Space Command requirements were folded into RSA it took on a new name, new approach, and a basic change in concept, being called “Range Standardization and Automation.” Space Command’s standardization concepts and the vision of “space troops” being shifted to high-priority launches as required meant that RSA had to be applied to both the Eastern and Western ranges, even though the Vandenberg launch base had virtually no offshore “remote stations” where the manpower needed to be slimmed down, facilities disposed of, or rents reduced.

What the slip/scrub problem really was about was that senior Air Force officers, government program managers, and corporate CEOs really hated having to sit and wait.

Another feature added to RSA was a heavy emphasis on schedule. Slips in launch dates were common in the space business, but launch scrubs, where the operation was rescheduled to a later date after the countdown had began, were downright infuriating to some. The most common reason for a scrub was violation of weather constraints; the least likely cause was the launch range suffering an equipment problem. But what happened after a scrub was what really upset some people. If the scrub resulted in a slip to the very next day, the launch base would require the next launch on the schedule to slip as well, if that next operation was scheduled too soon to enable it to be supported. It could take over two days to reconfigure the range for a different vehicle. But if a scrub resulted in a slip to the next day and that rescheduled operation was scrubbed as well, it had to slip until it no longer interfered with other launches. In a few cases a launch might have to slip over and over again, for weeks, until the weather and range availability synched up properly; the best example of this was the Titan III Commercial Skynet/JCsat launch of January 1, 1990.

What every range user wanted was for the range to be captured by them until they finally got their act together or the weather cleared up and they could launch. Obviously, this was impossible. Shutting down all other launches and giving priority to one would cause massive and cascading schedule delays for every program. What the slip/scrub problem really was about was that senior Air Force officers, government program managers, and corporate CEOs really hated having to sit and wait. The real impact of a slip of a few days on military, civil, and even commercial activities was virtually nonexistent, but the senior leadership wanted to get the mission done ASAP and get back to the usual things they did every day. And besides, it usually was something like three o’clock in the morning when the scrub occurred.

The answer to reducing the impact of launch scrubs was very simple: hire an additional shift of workers so the range could be reconfigured more quickly. But at the Pentagon the analysis for that concept went like this:

Action Officer: “Vandenberg proposes to add $5 million to their funding so they can hire an additional shift for the range.”

Analyst: “Well, how many more launches in a year can we do with a second shift?”

Action Officer: “None. The range is not the limiting factor. A second shift will only reduce delays. ”

Analyst: “How many launches will not be delayed and for how much?”

Action Officer: “Oh, maybe two or three a year might not be delayed by a day or two.”

Analyst: “What’s the impact of those delays?”

Action Officer: “Nothing. A spacecraft might get to orbit a day or two or maybe even a week later than planned, but the need for the new assets on orbit is almost never that urgent.”

Analyst: “$5 million a year to not delay two or three missions for a day or two and with no real operational impact? Forget about it!”

Nonetheless, to the “operational” advocates, getting spacecraft deployed even a day later than planned was unacceptable. An aircraft or missile getting to its target a day or two late was utterly unthinkable, so this had to apply to “operational” space launches. So, the Space Command approach was to handle the launch delay problem with advanced technology incorporated in the RSA program to enable faster reconfiguration of the ranges, because they would never get the money to hire additional work shifts. Of course, the launch companies also could have reduced the impact of slips and scrubs by hiring additional personnel for their launch crews, but they were not willing to do that, either.

Base beautification

Air Force Systems Command considered its test ranges to be merely adjuncts to the product divisions: necessary evils, so to speak. Appearance of the facilities did not receive much in the way of emphasis; after all, most were industrial in nature. But Air Force Space Command had a great deal of pride of ownership in its newly acquired real estate and held a competition each year as to which base looked the best. Somewhat paradoxically, the winner of the competition received more money for base beautification. This was a problem for the launch centers. The facilities were old and most never built for external appearance. Space Command soon reached the conclusion that the best thing that could be done with many of the facilities was to tear them down: bare ground required a minimum of upkeep and generally looked much nicer. A master plan was developed for Cape Canaveral AFS that envisioned that all but the actual launch pads in use and a few historical sites would be demolished, with processing facilities, warehouses, and offices required to support the launches located “somewhere else.” This approach would be better for safety as well as reducing maintenance costs and improving base beautification, since you can’t blow up what is not there and, even more importantly, you did not have to maintain it as well.

To contribute to this radically new approach, a policy was established at Cape Canaveral in the 1990s stating that private firms would not be allowed to locate their offices on Air Force property. They had to go off-base, even if they were operating under Air Force contracts. In that same timeframe, effort went into making the Cape available for recreational opportunities. In other words, the whole place was going to become essentially a park and a museum, with a few widely scattered range installations and active launch facilities. The problem of how to get those rockets assembled and where to house the staff required would literally be someone else’s concern, and be put somewhere else.

You can’t blow up what is not there and, even more importantly, you do not have to maintain it as well.

In addition, while the Commercial Space Launch Act required the federal government to provide excess property to private space launch companies, Air Force Space Command adopted a highly restrictive interpretation of that requirement. If a private firm simply asserted that allowing another private company to use surplus government facilities would harm their business, that commercial use was not allowed (see “An embarrassment of riches”, The Space Review, June 28, 2010.)

After finally giving up developing a new ELV in cooperation with NASA, the Air Force began the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program in 1994. EELV produced the Delta IV and Atlas V programs and the Air Force adopted a semi-commercial approach to EELV facilities, in which the Air Force would lease both unimproved land and unused facilities to the private firms, including responsibility for construction and maintenance where required. This commercial style approach to EELV basically fell apart in the first decade of the 21st century, largely due to foreign competition, and the Air Force was once again responsible for ELV facility operating and maintenance costs.


The Air Force Systems Command approach to the spaceports was characterized by:

  1. Focus on the Command’s primary mission of weapons systems acquisition.
  2. A programmatic focus rather than a spaceport focus.
  3. Refusal to acknowledge space launch or launch range activities as a separately defined career field.
  4. Allowing decay of the range, base, and launch infrastructure due to the national decision to rely on the Space Shuttle.
  5. Experience-based accommodation of the realities of space launch. They were forced to admit that it was a hard and unforgiving business.

The Air Force Space Command approach to the spaceports in the late 1980s and 1990s was characterized by:

  1. Considerable investment to repair and upgrade aging facilities and infrastructure.
  2. “Make it possible for a history major to conduct a launch.”
  3. Standardization, for its own sake, as well as support of Item 2 above
  4. A greater emphasis on adherence to schedules, with faster range turnarounds by means of improved technology, while avoiding additional manpower.
  5. Base beautification and reduced maintenance costs through elimination of facilities and movement of launch support activities elsewhere.
  6. Private firms building and maintaining their own facilities, even when they were supporting US government missions.
  7. Emphasis on an overall “operational” approach with a gradual and limited experience-based accommodation of the realities of space launch.
  8. Refusal to acknowledge space launch or launch range activities as a separately defined career field but rather as a part of overall Command operational careers.

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